I landed in Austin on July 3rd at 7 p.m. The pilot announced that it was 101 degrees. The heat index was 109.
EP, a droll Irish Texan, son of a cop, mid-sized with slabs of muscle across his middle, tattooed, wearing an enormous cowboy hat and square, hipster glasses, met me at the airport. We sat in the parking lot of a nearby taqueria and for $1.99 I bolted down three delicious ghetto tacos -a picadillo, a pollo and an aguacate double wrapped in corn tortillas to ward off the grease.
On the way to the lake we shared a Red Bull and Bacardi cocktail. Somehow we drank a Bulleit Bourbon and ginger ale standing on the beach waiting for a kid named Joe Hensel to get his truck out of the sand. Then his boat wouldn’t start and we poured another drink and watched as Joe sat with his feet in ankle-deep water and applied two wires to a 12-volt marine battery. Sparks flew up, buzzing like bees, and a blue glow lit the sweltering night. It was like watching an arc welder. The engine coughed and cranked, sputtered like a cow fart, emitted a frank odor of acid and ether and then died with a jerk.
That’s a good sign, Joe said.
He was young, with blue eyes and the energy of a bull terrier.
Be careful, baby, said Alex Pyuen in a hoarse whisper. She was Joe’s girlfriend – brunette, gorgeous and leaving the next day for Spain to study the language and maybe get her organic chemistry requirement out of the way.
Joe removed the engine cowl and sprayed some high-test spirit directly into the carburetor. Then he applied the wires to the battery like a Benedictine monk might put hot tongs in the devil’s ears. The engine repeated its gassy roll, hiccup and death rattle.
Fortunately, Merrick, Christen, Vinny and Lisa showed up with another boat, which they were able to start (barely). They fixed a towline to our bow and pulled us across the lake to a semicircle of cliffs that overhung the dark water. The walls were the exact color of the three-quarters moon and 40 feet high. Tufas hung down like taffy dripping off the lower lip of a giant. It was an arresting sight, and a happy one for a climber, but even more commanding was the 66-foot houseboat – Chateau vis Amis – docked on the opposite side of the cove.
One of my oldest friends, Kirk Holladay, had turned left at a right bend on Highway 71 outside of Llano two weeks previous. He rolled his car into a concrete culvert and died. My favorite picture of Kirky shows him standing naked in the middle of the Pecos River with his arms upraised – an upright, skinny brown body. There’s defiance in the pose, and tremendous joy. He was foremost a climber, establishing a bunch of the most classic 5.9s, 10s and 11s in Texas, and Mexico. With Alvino Pons and Brian Wann, he was a pioneer at Pace Bend Park, putting up dozens of psicobloc (deep water soloing) problems and bolting climbs off the rocky shores.
Kirky was opinionated. He would argue the ears off a fruit bat, but he would also look that bat in the eye and tell it he loved it. Kirky was a cosmic cowboy. He died at 4:22 p.m., veering significantly to the left – a libertine and a traditionalist at the same time. He’d been heading home from Enchanted Rock after a long day of guiding with his company Rockabout when his car ran off the road and flipped. He left behind a 3-year-old daughter.
The recent deaths of John Bachar, Micah Dash, Jonny Copp and Wade Johnson – all climbers killed prematurely – offered another reason to gather.
It was also Karl Guthrie’s 50th birthday. Karl, owner of Climb Tech, the company that invented removable bolts, was the kind of guy who could join an online dating service, meet a beautiful young woman from Kenya (Christine Awuor) and then court her through many trips to Africa, impress the local Africans with his dancing ability and finally bring the girl back to Texas as his wife. Her only complaint: Austin was too cold.
Karl can do just about everything. Remodel his house, run a successful business, climb 5.12s at 50. He’s an expert sushi chef and he loves to roll fish and talk shit. He is also the first guy to step up for any adventure involving loose rock, altitude, lots of exposure and a chance to salsa dance.
He had rented a houseboat and parked it on Cow Cove, one of a spate of new psicobloc areas popping up at Pace Bend Park this year. Drought conditions have caused the lake to drop 40 feet, exposing new cliffs that have been submerged since the 1950s. The tufas and edges have been washed clean for as long as Karl has been alive. Then the lake dropped, revealing big holds on steep rock, 40 feet over deep water. A rickety flotilla of five boats (Moby Dick, the Bastard Craft, Armada One, the Douch Canoe, The Smurf, The Transformer and the Deputy) captained by Austin locals Greg Brooks, Clayton Reagan, Andrew Oliver, Chris Vinson, Rick Rivera, Paul Brady, John Garcia and Tommy Blackwell, respectively, had been plying the waters of Lake Travis for months in search of the goods. They found what they were looking for at Point Cove, Zombie Dongs and Cow Cove.
Karl’s friends were jetting in from all over creation to help him celebrate a half-century and to sample some newfound psicobloc.
This was another reason to pour back some firewater, but not the only reason. Drinking alcohol is like punching yourself in the liver. It makes no sense at all, and yet I drank with compunction. We climbed and ate and raged and the hangovers were red-eyed and tasted like ashes.
Two days and nights passed in a blur comparable to the cavitations of people you love appearing and disappearing like bubbles. Life progresses with the whimsicality of a tornado and there is something comforting in the idea of annihilation. Impermanence salts life with yearning, what the Japanese call wabi sabi, an appreciation of the transient beauty of the physical world. Is that why so many good memories are made out of pain and endurance?
Birthdays and wakes are two sides of a coin, but the coin is made of time and therefore as slippery as a glycerin bead floating on the surface of the lake. Suffice it to say that one antidote to living and dying is celebration.
Lone star Logistics
Texas in summer is a pitiless place. Hot as eight feet up a bull’s ass, humid yet at the same time parched, and dangerous. Rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, scorpions, fire ants, mosquitoes, centipedes – even the perch nip at your toes if you fall asleep in your inner tube. But at Pace Bend Park, 30 miles west of Austin, a combination of shade, water and featured limestone transform the hell that is Texas summer into something actually enjoyable. Add a houseboat and 25 of your best friends and it might be unforgettable.
First, go to www.briarcliffmarina.com for information on boat rentals. You can rent a 20-foot pontoon boat for $65 per hour. A houseboat will run you $2,495 for a weekend (three days and two nights). Next, visit Andy Klier’s online guide to Pace Bend Park at www.bloodyflapper.com/pacebend. This guide lists the current lake level and the minimum and safe water levels for nine developed psicobloc areas on the bend. Finally, pick up a lake map at the entrance station and explore the lake on your own. Lake Travis is massive (65 miles long), and Pace Bend Park (nine miles of shoreline) is pocked by caves and steep walls that rise directly out of the water. There is a lot of potential climbing. Be sure to bring a long stick to use as a depth gauge, and keep an eye out for snakes.